Saturday, October 25, 1997
The Washington Post
EFFORTS TO TAKE political advantage of political prisoners are an old story. The current case in Washington involves Leyla Zana, an internationally known advocate of self-determination, or statehood, for Kurds in Turkey. Elected to the Turkish parliament in 1991, she was sentenced three years later to 15 years in prison for separatism and promoting the destruction of Turkey’s territorial integrity. She is 36, the mother of two, articulate, courageous and culturally at home in a Western setting. A campaign to free her is on now.
There seems little doubt that Ms. Zana is a separatist: That is what her bold advocacy of Kurdish self-determination is about. Kurds, who also live in Iraq, Iran and Syria, pose a challenge to all of their hosts but nowhere so keenly as in Turkey, where a no-holds-barred war, immensely costly to both sides, is being waged by Turkish armed forces and the avowedly separatist PKK. The Turks identify the PKK as a terrorist organization; on this point the last three American presidents have agreed with their NATO ally.
For the Turkish authorities, a seamless web connects Kurdish political advocates to military rebels to outright terrorists. In the official view, separatism and terrorism are synonyms, and Ms. Zana is, if not a terrorist, then someone who “serves the agenda of a terrorist organization.” But this goes way too far. The parliamentarian and the PKK may share an agenda of Kurdish self-determination. But the one approaches it politically and the other by violence. In a democracy, which Turkey professes to be, this is a crucial difference. A democracy worthy of the name cannot simply categorize its political opponents as criminals, jail them and refuse to discuss their grievances.
The current and recent Turkish governments have put the very great problem of the Kurds in the hands of a Turkish military often insensitive to human rights. Earlier leaders, including Turgut Ozal, had hinted at a civilian solution. It is a fair question whether the rush of military events may not have diminished the possibility of political compromise between the side insisting on Turkey’s unbreakable territorial integrity and the side demanding full Kurdish sovereignty. Remote as it may be, however, a middle way dealing with cultural and economic rights as well as political ones offers the only practical alternative to permanent conflict. Politicians like Leyla Zana could yet have a role.